When James Christen Steward settles down in his light-filled office at the Princeton University Art Museum later this month, the new director will bring with him a pedigree that includes a history of aesthetic entrepreneurship, notable scholarship, and the art of making sure that museum doors are open wide enough to welcome an ever-increasing art-loving public. After more than a decade at the helm at the University of Michigan Art Museum — during which he almost doubled attendance, increased holdings by some 30 percent, and raised enough money to build a glamorous new wing that doubles the scale of the institution — he is bringing his many directorial talents to Princeton.
The new director says he looks forward to working with “an exceptional set of resources,” noting Princeton’s encyclopedic holdings; the diversity, quality, and depth of students and faculty; and the importance of the museum’s location in the heart of the Northeast corridor. It is an opportunity, he says, “to further animate the museum and make it a more powerful presence in the community-at-large.”
The community at large is invited to one of the museum’s most popular annual events, Family Day, on Saturday, May 16. This year’s event will highlight the museum’s special exhibition, “Outside In: Chinese x American x Contemporary Art,” and feature art projects and live performances, courtesy of the Princeton Chinese Language School, celebrating Asian art and culture. Some of the art projects incude calligraphy, origami, Chinese knotting, mask making, brush painting, and Chinese scrolls. Performances include fan, drum, and flag dances; a yo-yo group featuring an 18-year-old “pro”; and a performance by chamber ensemble Music from China. A scavenger hunt will take participants through the museum’s galleries to see works of art ranging from ancient times to the present. The event is free.
Steward has taught a variety of subjects in the visual arts, including museum philosophy and practice, and has lectured on the future of the museum. He says that the nature of museums today is in transition: museums are evolving into the social and cultural equivalent of the old-fashioned town hall. Citing a plethora of influences that range from new technology to changing public expectations about the way in which it connects with the arts, the museum, according to Steward, is becoming the place where we, as a society, are choosing to spend an increasing share of our social capital. “There is a growing necessity for public institutions to function as civic space,” he says, pointing out that in the museum world, current concerns have, to some degree, shifted from the object to the audience.
For the various arts audiences in the region — students, scholars, and the Princeton community at large — Steward’s observations about museums in general translate into the good news that over time there will be an ever-increasing number of reasons to take a trip to the Princeton University Art Museum. In keeping with the times, the museum is likely to evolve into a venue where art exists within a more complex social, aesthetic, and intellectual context. As such, the process of looking at art in Princeton will be even more challenging, more instructive and, frequently, a lot more fun.
With an eye to the changing nature and needs of the museum’s audience Steward points out that it is important to find new ways to engage the public with the arts. “Museums need to lighten up a little. There is no such thing as a one size fits all,” says Steward. He speaks of the use of multi-media or layered approaches in which the viewer has a choice of support materials as a means of more effectively connecting art with a broader public. He makes particular note of concerns about adequately serving a student population that he describes as “incredibly bright and diverse.”
Steward is currently at work on a volume on the place of the modern-day museum in American public life. “It is important to animate a museum, to rethink how we interpret the collections. I see this museum becoming a powerful presence in the community at large. But we must rethink these issues without diminishing the scholarly nature of the institution. That’s a juggling act. Possibilities include integrating visual arts and partnerships with other departments, more active connections with visiting fellows, and greater use of outdoor spaces as art venues,” says Steward.
Steward has a long history of finding new ways to make art speak to its audience, helping the viewer look at the familiar with fresh eyes and uncover the diversity of stories that art has to tell. Like many of the new generation of art historians he believes that pictures can tell us a great deal about the society in which they were made and that there is a narration in their imagery that mirrors the complexity of lived life. In 1999 he organized a groundbreaking exhibition of Irish painting, “When Time Began to Rant and Rage.” Taking its title from a line in William Butler Yeats’ poem, “To Ireland in the Coming Times,” Steward used art as a vehicle for an exploration of the forces that helped shape 20th-century Ireland and to document the complicated evolution of modern Irish painting. At the time Steward made it clear to his audience that art was more than just pictures, saying, “It is my hope this exhibition will effect a change in critical thinking on the aesthetic significance of Irish figurative painting, the extent to which Irish history has informed modern Irish painting, and (how) Irish painting has contributed to a visualization of what it is to be Irish.”
When he was a doctoral candidate in art history at Trinity College, Oxford,earning his degree in 1992, his thesis and the exhibitions and book that followed also used art as a means to consider a place in time, and to tell a story. “The New Child: British Art and the Origins of Modern Childhood, 1730-1830,” an examination of the nature of childhood and family relationships as revealed by 18th- and 19th-century British art, functioned as a graphic document charting the manner in which children were moved from the margins and came to occupy the center of family life. In the process he also used the featured art to explore such related subjects as childbirth and nursing; children’s toys; and the nature of education.
Museums have been at the center of Steward’s life as long as he can remember — and even longer. Steward, who declines to elaborate on his parents’ background, says he was just two months old when his mother took him to his first museum, the National Gallery in London. By the time he was in his teens, he considered an afternoon spent at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, DC, a good way to pass the time. And it’s been art, art, art, ever since. He received his undergraduate degree in history, French, and art history from the University of Virginia in 1981, and began his graduate career at the distinguished Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, where he earned a masters in art history in 1988. He has edited or authored a number of significant volumes that examine the interdisciplinary borders of art history and has organized numerous exhibits, many of which have traveled internationally. His research interests include 18th-century European art, architecture, landscape, and visual culture.
What that means is that Steward, 49, has had a lot of time to think about looking at art, to consider what it signifies, and to come up with new and improved ways to broaden the message, the experience, and the audience. His first chance at Princeton will come, he says, when the museum opens its reinstalled Medieval Gallery. He looks to it as an opportunity to offer “layered” viewing with a potential diversity of support materials that could range from hand-held carry cards and a variety of didactic material to higher-tech viewing aids.
And that is probably just the beginning. As in Ann Arbor, where he instituted occasional evening hours, poetry slams, dance programs, film, a spate of new programs that attract families and single people, and events that target people who were not yet familiar or comfortable with art museums, he says that he wants to make the museum a place where people feel welcome and are energized by what they see. “I would like to see the museum engage the non-university population while honoring our commitment to scholarship. I am going to take a look at how to make the exhibition program much more dynamic.”
He says that exhibition goals have to change for a variety reasons including the state of the economy and the stunning cost of mounting a display in which individual works are valued at millions of dollars. “It’s not a good time for blockbusters — mini-blockbusters perhaps,” he says. On his list of possibilities is an exhibition with a local angle, in which the work of East Brunswick artist George Segal is used as the foundation for a look at the community of artists who circled around him, and an examination of the art of the 1960s.
When all is said and done Steward says that how is as important as what — that the appropriate physical and contextual installation of works of art can exert a profound effect on the viewer. “Every environment sends a message. The display environment can dramatically change the way we confront a work of art.”
And, according to Steward, esthetic confrontation is high on his list of things to do. “Engagement with a work of art is essential to the human experience. There is nothing like a quiet conversation between you and a great work of art.”
Family Day, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton campus. Saturday, May 16, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. A free community event highlighting the exhibit “Outside In: Chinese x American x Contemporary Art” Rain or shine. 609-258-3788 or www.princetonartmuseum.org.